IN SEARCH OF THE INTELLIGENTSIA… How educated illiteracy has made us ENDANGERED SPECIES by Akinwumi Akinola

In 2010, I was invited to speak to the students of a High School shortly after I graduated from the university. At that time, my mother was the principal of the school. She is passionate about education, even though we tease her that the school she established can be best described as a charity. That’s the extent of her passion for education.

In her undergraduate years, education was relatively good. I remember her telling me she had admissions into two prestigious universities –OAU and UI-at the time. She eventually opted for the one whose admission letter was first to reach her IN HER HOUSE. When I heard that, I exclaimed! “Admission letter reaching you at home?” Yes! That was how great the system was. With reference to her university years, she was worried why a brilliant boy like me would become frantic about securing admission. Alas! Things have changed. Merit has little role to play in securing admission, or even getting a job thereafter in this present time.

As a pragmatist, I wasn’t interested in any course that was more theoretical than practical. So the changing realities, challenges I faced in school and how I surmounted them, were my discussion themes while speaking to these folks.

Fast forward 7 years after, I am not sure I can give the same counsel and hope to those students again. Not that it is difficult, but chances are that they would boo me out of the stage with my message of values, uprightness, diligence etc. We are a generation one step to derangement! Or how else would you market values that have literally not profited Nigerians in the immediate. Doing things RIGHT have become oddity that everyone would probably laugh you to scorn. The ABNORMAL is now the NEW NORMAL!

How do you preach hardwork and study when the Joint Admissions Board lowered the cut-off point for entry into universities on the grounds that majority failed. Is that not encouraging laziness in some way? I am very given and immersed in research and I understand that you don’t determine the pass mark after the result is out. JAMB needed to do two things to salvage that mess. First, they needed to update their curriculum and test questions to meet up with the demands of present time. Secondly, JAMB ought to have pre-tested those questions randomly in different regions of the country to find the average pass rate, then use that to develop a grading scale for the exam, before it is written.

In the UK, certain schools such as LSE state expressly they admit ONLY first class students for their master’s degree. That’s setting the tone before admission. The idea of private universities trying to justify the financial investments in students by passing them or lowering promotion/graduation standard is totally unacceptable.

For the lecturers who fail their students just to prove how difficult their course is, I blame the school authority for neglecting students’ opinion in grading their lecturers’ performance. During my master’s program in Nigeria, a professor teaching us bottom-up approach to project management emphasized that many projects fail because consumer/end-users are never consulted at the design stage of projects. I asked him a question – “why does the school authority not consult the students in appraisal and re-design of curriculum, yet complain of mass failure in some courses”. He couldn’t answer. The point is –live by what you teach or preach, and learning is experiential that way. Some of the courses we were mandated to take at the time were not relevant to us at all.

I am ashamed of many professors who cannot construct good English, yet hinder their subordinates from rising to such career peak as theirs. Call it gross insecurity and you will be right! The question is, how, and why did they become professors in the first place. I’ll tell you why; because the school relies on scholarly publication from research to promote them. And they outsmart the system by hiring ghost writers to churn out papers in their name. Because professorship is a BIG DEAL to brag about in Nigeria, even when that has not led to any significant improvement in Nigeria’s GDP through innovations and invention. There is little or no nexus between research in the academia and professional practice, making many of the research papers useless.

If the teachers and the professors show this level of ineptitude, we shouldn’t be surprised at the poor quality of graduates they produce. When I saw the number of first class graduates turned out by universities in Nigeria, especially the private ones, I became worried. For us to have that volume of ‘scholarly’ research work, yet be embroiled in the increasing level of unsolved problems in our nation, something is wrong! It’s either our grading standard is faulty, or our researches do not speak to ailing issues and problems in the society. In the case of the latter, what‘s the point investing financial and intellectual resources in research if it’s not solving problems. I shudder!

The implication of this is that we would have a lot of people who are educated, some of them graduating with first class, who were never literate. Literacy is beyond just acquiring education, and assuming all educated individuals are literate makes us endangered species. Beyond this costly assumption, we would have a lot of people glorify education beyond literacy. We would have many young graduates aspiring like the ‘Bling-bling’ Senator to get a short course in Havard to improve their political positioning but not their thinking capacity. Such people would be questioned if they really went through Havard or just added it to their certificates.

Funnily, there are contemporaries of the bling-bling senator among our fresh graduates. Every meeting is an opportunity to ask for a certificate- that is if it is not their major driver for attending in the first place. Undoubtedly, Nigeria is a certificate-driven country, but what should be an evidence of bliss and contribution is fast becoming a trumping fad, a competitive edge to trump really competent folks who cannot afford the Ivy-league schools. Very pitiable situation.

The political class in Nigeria now see schooling abroad as a social capital for them to keep their wealth flowing, and marry their children to children from the same socio-economic class. What we have in recent times is social betrothal of children to maintain political and financial net worth. This does not mean there aren’t a few outliers with stories of genuine love. May be, just maybe, the conjecture of some folks- that the problem Nigeria has is that divide between the rich and poor, the elites and the downtrodden- is true. That’s why a state governor watched a university under his government grounded for up to 18 months, while his children were schooling abroad.

The education sector in Nigeria demands declaration of a STATE OF EMERGENCY. At the risk of sounding insensitive, the teachers in Kaduna State carrying placards which read “Education is no true test of knowedge” are a fatal disgrace to the education sector. While there is a non-significant portion of truth in the quote, how come they have never discovered this and advocated a re-jig of the mechanism of testing their students before now. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. It would be nice to hear from them what better ways their knowledge should have been tested. The questions were basic and not complicated in any way to warrant such mass failure. It is incomprehensible in any way to defend mass failures by teachers who grade their students of same exams.

But beyond the teachers, the regulatory bodies should also be held responsible! The argument that mass lay-offs should be avoided for economic and security concerns must not defeat the priority that should be given for a competitive and meritorious teaching in our schools. Household economic strengthening was not the major goal of their employment, but a product of the value they offer. In the circumstance where they offer none, they either have to increase their market value with more learning or face the consequences of ineptitude. People who say the lay-offs do not translate to better learning infrastructure are right, but the human resources of any project are too important, far too important than the materials. If you hire wrongly, no amount of money or classrooms will clean the mess.

Literacy requires us to ask questions. But the current terrain in Nigeria does not like that. You become a rebel for asking salient questions for proper guidance and informed-decision making. This passing week, I was in the Federal Road Safety Commission to renew my driving licence. On enquiring for details of payment, and the average duration it takes to renew, the officer flared up. I guess my questions were becoming too much for him, unusual and unexpected of Nigerians. I wanted facts, but asking for that was quarrelsome to him. I would have concluded or generalized they were all the same, but his boss was way too professional than I expected.

If we must grow as a nation, questioning must be an integral part of our life! Irrespective of the setting, questioning opens opportunity for growth and progress. Unfortunately, some sectors –especially religious and security- do not encourage this; hence constitute great obstacles to our development. Evil thrives in secrecy, and the person who questions such dark spots that are not clear or transparent should not be labelled as rebellious or villain.

Religion, just like academia should permit reasoning and dissent of thoughts, without the leader feeling insulted or insecure. This should be a major part of our literacy. The police should learn public relations in order to know how to conduct themselves with civilians. The level of indignity meted on Nigerians by men in uniform is highly tormenting and indecorous. These are the new spheres of literacy we must acquire. But one more thing – community organizing will be our greatest weapon of bargain in years to come. That is the future of LITERACY we desire.

By Akinwumi Akinola

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